Chinese Characters book cover, by Ann and Peter Timonin
Ann and Peter Timonin spent a year living in Kunming, China. Their adventure was a gap year between work and retirement. Ann teaches English and Peter worked as a civil servant. After returning to Winnipeg, they wrote a book called Chinese Characters - Emails from the Middle Kingdom. The book is a compilation of emails sent to family and friends. Ann and Peter wrote to each other, blind-copying others so as to protect their identity.
SCENE asked the Timonins what made them decide to spend a year in China.
I was dreading the first year of Peter's retirement. I just didn't know how we would get along together when we were in the same space all the time. Even worse, that space was going to be an apartment in China because we had agreed to spend that year doing something different in order to make a break with our usual routine.
I needn't have worried. Being thrown together in an alien place meant we had to engage with each other without the usual distractions (like sports on television) or patterns of escape (like the mall or long drives). In fact the most surprising thing about our year in China really had little to do with the Asian context. It was an excellent opportunity to reconnect with each other in ways we had not even imagined at home.
The whole adventure was a pleasant surprise from the acceptable size of a two-bedroom apartment to the opportunity to explore more than the local scene as we had access to pension money that would not have been available if we had gone overseas earlier in our working lives. We found reasons to talk, reasons to plan and reasons to enjoy life without the many pressures of North American life.
Perhaps an overseas year is not for all contemplating retirement, but for us as a couple it was just the right decision!
Tiananmen Square in the heat of summer (Peter Timonin)
Before we left for China, perhaps as preparation or perhaps out of simple curiosity, I read a book called "Wild Swans." The book, by Chinese dissident and refugee in England Jeng Chung, is about her grandmother's, her mother's and her own experiences in China during World War 2, the Chinese Civil War and the Cultural Revolution. The book is not particularly flattering of Mao and his performance during the Cultural Revolution as Chung's immediate family was badly mauled during this period resulting in the eventual death of her father.
In the preface, the author states, not surprisingly, that the book is banned in China, although it has been translated into Mandarin and printed in Taiwan. So it was with a great deal of shock and wonder that I spotted a stack of copies of "Wild Swans" in Mandarin Books, a small international book shop located a couple of hundred yards from our apartment in Kunming. Was some Chinese customs official asleep on the job when they arrived in the Middle Kingdom? Had the previous restriction been lifted? Who knows? But there they were. I bought a copy to give to "my" history student as she seemed to be interested in many topics not considered acceptable by the authorities. The episode showed me that China is full of surprises, and this was one of many that caught my attention.
Listen to interview with host Keran Sanders of Weekend Morning Show from Sunday August 14.